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> Lessons from the road Part III: West Africa

Thursday, 11 February 2010 - 23:43

Lessons from the road Part III: West Africa

 

Crossing confidently into Senegal after a couple of month’s experience on the road through Europe and North Africa, conquering the Atlas mountains and the Sahara in the process, I was beginning to regard myself as a seasoned cycle tourer rather than the pigeon-sticked, mechanically ignorant cycling novice that set out from England in October, and was even starting to feel that I could pull off wearing a pair of lycra cycling shorts! How wrong I was, not only did the irresistible range of cheap street foods that greeted me on arrival in West Africa soon lead to sickness that robbed me of my new found lycra-short-filling muscle, but a relentless series of punctures and faulty Chinese replacements left me wondering just how long and bumpy the road to South Africa 2010 would be! Travelling through an incredibly rewarding and diverse range of cultures and landscapes from nomadic herders in the Sahel to tribes in the tropical rainforest, road conditions, terrain, local traditions, kamikaze road users, officials and wildlife all posed interesting challenges that have taught me a further thing or two about life on the road. I therefore feel that it is once again my duty to pass on my new found knowledge from the road of discovery so others can learn from my mistakes:

 

·         If you are sensitive about the whiteness of your skin complexion, or suffer from attention claustrophobia, travel to another part of the world. Whether it is “le Blanc” in Mali, “toubab” in Senegal or “Mr White” in Nigeria expect to receive relentless dawn to dusk friendly heckling and hissing from all directions and ages. If you can’t resist by responding with a retaliatory hiss, “Le Noir” or “Yo Mr Black” choose your timing wisely, preferably not when being approached by an aggressive Ghanian in a wife-beater unless you’re travelling at speed with gravity on your side! Expect to have your every move scrutinised by instant crowds whether you are attempting to find a toilet bush, buying some grub or trying to apply essential saddle relief cream.

·         Remove all facial hair (especially if ginger) unless you want to have ‘Jesus’ yelled at you, or send children running in fear of your wizardry powers.

·         Spend time learning French and playing charades at leaving parties before you depart to avoid communication breakdowns and misunderstandings that will leave you wondering what animal or indeed piece of anatomy you are about to eat, which road you should follow or how many weeks you will have to go before you get more than a one-sided conversation with your beloved bike.

·         The majority of West Africans will be very keen to obtain your contact details and ideally an invite to the UK. Ensuring that they are fully aware that you have no home, job, wife or future prospects normally helps, but if in doubt give them the contact details of someone you owe a favour and think could do with some Nigerian friends!

·         If like me your skin is as irresistible to mosquitoes as chocolate is to women, and you are also addicted to sampling all manner of street foods, doxycycline is the anti-malarial for you. Doubling up as an antibiotic doxy will also allow you to indulge your dirtiest hunger fantasies… well most of the time – even doxy can’t help against cloudy river water and maggot invested fish.

·         With little alternative for the locals, prepare to be surrounded by rubbish and witness some appalling acts of littering not helped by street sellers’ insistence on giving you endless plastic bags for even the smallest purchases. With bag quality so weak double bagging is common practice, it’s just a shame the same approach isn’t taken in the bedroom which might help to address some of West Africa’s other biggest problems!

·         If you plan to get your girlfriend to cycle over 1000km in two weeks through rugged tropical terrain in 40 degree heat while suffering from giardia, share a single tent after days without washing clothes or bodies, and put up with your malt loaf withdrawal symptoms, ensure that you allow sufficient time in suitably comfortable and clean surroundings to rekindle the romance before her departure.

·         Be prepared for long and protracted greetings, an integral part of many African societies. Much like a table tennis warm up, the greeter drops the ball into play with an opening pleasantry thereby starting an exchange of family and business related niceties which only come to an end when someone loses interest and lamely dumps the ball in the net with an inadequate response or tires of the conversation and puts it away with a conclusive remark. With my language skills offering as limited a shot selection as my sister on the table tennis table I was spared long exchanges but I was fortunate enough to witness the Chinese champion  equivalents of the greeting game, the Dogon people, embraced in some truly epic duels.

·         Only use land marks such as army barracks as meeting points or places to make mobile phone calls if you want to experience life as a detained international spy. (see blog “I spy & Nigerian TV” on Day 111 – Tuesday 19 January 2010).

·         If interviewed by local TV in the company of a lively crowd ensure that you have a good escape route especially if you wish to make derogatory remarks about the state of the country’s football team.

·         Eating couldn’t be cheaper with rice, beans, fufu, banku, pap and other non descript white blobs of starch providing the staple basis for meals. The real joy comes from sampling the variety of spicy sauces and deep fried foods on offer. Using copious amounts of groundnut and palm oil along with stacks of oxo (Maggie) don’t expect to be short of flavour or artery blocking cholesterol.

·         “Chinese meat” is not in fact tender cuts of poultry and beef in a delicious oriental sauce but a lottery of amphibian, reptile and mammal meats considered inedible in 99% of the world’s societies.

·         Do not expect colonial legacies to translate into delicious fried breakfasts, delicate sweet pastries and reliable infrastructure but rather synthetic white bread, mouth parching pies, pot-holed roads and frequent power failures.

·         The closest you are going to get to wildlife is unfortunately likely to be in the form of bush meat, ranging from pythons to pangolins, hanging by the side of the road. If you’re looking for something with a bit more life surround your tent at night with leftovers, and watch and wait.

·         With Islam and Christianity vying for ascendancy in many west African countries expect to be woken by amplified preachers at all hours of the night, witness numerous churches and mosques trying to outfast each other, and encounter countless fanatics who if you are lucky will pray for “angels to deliver you from bandits” and shower you with enlightening leaflets such as “the devil’s strategy”.

·         Almost as fool proof as pythagoras theorem, when Africans provide a time or distance multiply it by 2 and add the initial time or distance again to get an accurate figure.

 

Travelling through remote rural and urban areas of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria I have been fortunate enough to experience the sometimes overwhelming hustle, bustle and vibrancy of the major market trading centres, the breathtaking beauty of some of West Africa’s finest wilderness areas, and been welcomed by countless local communities. Despite the ubiquitous poverty I’ve encountered, my security has never felt threatened and people have always been incredibly friendly and welcoming even if the concept of cycling to the nearby town is beyond most local people’s comprehension, let alone across Africa! Once again, despite my feral appearance, I’ve been blown away by the hospitality and generosity shown to me by people on the road either in providing a roof over my head, food in my substantial stomach or offering me some interesting and sometimes helpful advice on the road ahead!

 

Central Africa promises to be just as challenging an adventure, as I pioneer an unknown cross-country route into the Congo, negotiate the troubled DRC and attempt to secure a notoriously problematic Angolan visa while trying to find the energy and motivation to put in some Comrades training. It’s a good job I’m a veteran tourer now and know so much about life on the road!!

 

Thanks again to everyone who continues to donate so generously. Having visited a couple of Re-Cycles projects in Ghana I can assure you the money will be put to great use. With your help we can achieve the pound per km target providing sufficient funds to secure at least one new partner project in Africa, so keep the donations rolling in and I’ll keep the pedals spinning. Special thanks to Joe for his continued support and latest updates on the website

 

For now I best get back on the SA2010 football migration.

All the best,

Rob

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